Journalist and podcaster Tina Horn made a splash in comics when Safe Sex (or SfSx) was released by Image Comics in 2019. Originally developed at Vertigo before the imprint shut down, the comic was masterful.
Horn was a natural at writing fiction, her use of language was powerful, and the way she melded it to a science fiction thriller plot that addressed sex and gender, fascism and politics in exciting ways. The second volume of the series has been released a graphic novel, and it is even better. SfSx: Terms of Service deals with men’s rights, incels and sex robots; it looks at desire and power, and the violence inherent in repression. Horn is so precise with her language, and here she’s been able to examine the language around and dynamics of group identity, which can be helpful and allow people to build community, or can be harmful and be used to give individuals the illusion of autonomy so that people in power can control them.
Describing the book in purely analytical terms does it a disservice, as Horn and artist G Romero-Johnson craft a story that manages to be as thrilling as it is erotic, and a great science fiction tale that’s so day after tomorrow that calling it dystopic or cyberpunk misses just how contemporary this book is. Horn was kind enough to take time out to talk about how she worked, the genius of Swamp Thing, and rethinking what “bimbos” mean.
Tina, the business background of Sfsx has been described and discussed, but I am curious about how you were thinking about the book from early on. Did you have a longer story and a series of arcs planned out? An ending in mind? After you finally finished the first story arc, were you always thinking, “I need to keep going?“
I love this world and the characters, and if I can find the means I’ll keep writing it forever. The engine of the story is: what antagonizes sexual freedom? How can the art team and I personify those things as terrifying villains? What can the art team and I create to find back against that villainy? I knew from the start that each season/arc would have a different Big Bad that represents something troubling in contemporary sexual politics. For Protection, that was homonormativity and SWERFS. In Terms of Service it’s sex robots and incels. I definitely have some ideas for a third book to complete this trilogy: it has to do with answering a question that confuses and terrifies me in real life: what do anti-porn crusaders actually think that good, safe sex actually looks and feels like? For that, we have some ideas that involve leaning into the weird science, body horror, and explicit imagery that we ratcheted up in Terms of Service. I also love working with the art team of this book, so hopefully schedules and funding will make it possible for us to collaborate again! That’s all I should say for now!
After writing Protection, I’m curious what you took away from that. What did you feel you had figured out? What did you wanted to do differently? Beyond the plot details, what were you trying to do in Terms of Service?
With Protection, I was getting a crash course in writing serialized genre fiction. With Terms of Service I wanted to train myself to create a cohesive graphic novel. I worked really hard on learning from structure, and seeing what can emerge creatively when you use classic structures: for example, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to explore with the Avory-Stacie relationship, but in carving out the Dirty Mind B-plot, a truly emotional arc emerged for Denis. I ended up surprising myself with the early quarantine feelings of loss and alienation I poured into the story without realizing it.
One place I’ve grown is working with artists and letting them cook. It helps to have incredible artists to collaborate with, who invent things beyond my wildest dreams. Collaborating with people who understand queer bodies, understand kink, and understand horror allows me to trust them, which is so rewarding.
One thing that’s changed for me since I started developing SfSx in 2017, is that I’ve really sunk into my love of horror. Writing fiction has helped me to realize that my favorite kinds of stories are super disturbing ones! So this book is as gross and violent as it is erotic and political.
Tell me about thinking about the art, and finding G Romero-Johnson and working together on this second volume.
COVID turned everyone’s schedules upside down, and Jen Hickman ended up having too much on their plate to draw a whole SfSx graphic novel in 2021 (but you can see their early Stacie art in the backmatter of Terms of Service, which Jen was kind enough to let us publish). So I consulted these rad databases called Cartoonists of Color and Queer Cartoonists (created and maintained by MariNaomi). I also asked around in the comics community, and G Romero-Johnson really stood out from all those searches. They came from zine and queer punk culture, and have excellent taste in schlocky movies, so we hit it off right away. They auditioned with that masturbation fugue spread that opens the book, and suffice it to say I was like, this is the guy! G is truly a rising star and I’m honored that this book will always be an early one in what I know is going to be a long and successful career. Our editor/designer Laurenn McCubbin connected us to colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick whose work I greatly admire, and we brought back Tula Lotay and Steve Wands who have been with us since the beginning!
There’s a really striking scene early in the first issue where one character is masturbating, and I wonder if you could talk a little about writing it and collaborating with G on those pages. That scene is this very involved thing that requires collaboration between writer and artist.
Well, Avory is incarcerated at the end of Protection, so we needed to start there, but I wanted to signal that this book was going to be more erotic than ever before. When you have a problem to solve in fiction writing, you always have to ask yourself: what makes this character special? What makes Avory special is her vivid and powerful erotic imagination. So, I wanted a splash page diving into her inner life. Laurenn McCubbin was like, girl, make it two spreads, let everyone know SfSx is back and hornier than ever, baby! When G started drawing it, it was clear they could create abstract spaces and symbolic imagery as well as they draw smoking hot bodies and honest, deeply felt erotic action.
As a reference, I sent G one of my all time favorite comic book moments: Swamp Thing #34 (1985) where Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette and John Totleben created this truly psychedelic monster sex scene. I remember reading that as a teenager and thinking: comics can do anything!
At what point did you decide to release this as a graphic novel and not as individual issues?
Honestly, it’s a money thing. I grew up on floppies, I love them, I collect them. But comics basically never make as much in subsequent issues as issue #1. Our royalties have shown that even though there’s definitely been an encouraged consistency in sales and interest. I decided it was better to create the entire graphic novel, budget for it as a book, and also reach that market. The Image publishing model means we have to come up with the money to pay the artists, so we ran a Kickstarter that got lots of wonderful support. It’s been a beast to project manage something on this scale without paying myself, especially for a working class indie artist. But hopefully in the future we’ll be able to raise enough to pay the artists, all the fulfillment costs, and me, too!
With this being released as a graphic novel, we don’t get the extensive back matter you put together for the individual issues, which I really loved. I wondered if you had plans to try and collect the work you did from the first batch of issues in some form.
The Kickstarter backers are getting an exclusive digital zine with all of that stuff. I love treating comics as a sorta multi-media magazine. Maybe eventually we’ll be able to publish all the backmatter in an omnibus!
Another thing that changed is that Terms of Service is more focused. By which I mean, there is no issue #3 (or something similar) where the story does get to breathe a bit. Of course there were multiple reasons for that issue, but that’s something we see in ongoing series, and it’s not something we see in graphic novels. Though there are some Richard Scarry-esque scenes of the Dirty Mind in part 2, for example. (I’m sure there’s a better technical term than comparing them to Richard Scarry, but I loved those books as a kid).
With Protection, we had a lot of world building and action and character work to do. Now that the series is a success, we can spend some time lingering in the Dirty Mind as the atmosphere of our characters’ lives. And G just goes nuts with all of that detail. There’s a lot of Kickstarter cameos in there, too! So you get sexuality as character, as plot, as theme, but also as world building. It’s in the art and culture and livelihood of our characters as much as their private lives.
There’s so much in this book that really speaks to this moment. From how the pandemic has forced us to rethink our relationships to our bodies and pleasure, to seeing desire as a distraction, which I feel like is language that some puritanical young people have adopted, to the ways that the villains and what they do is tied up with technology and how tech is imbued with the biases of the people programming it and the people using it
Thanks for all of these observations! I’ve been obsessed with the idea of sex robots for a while, and since I am not a scientist, everything I know about computer programming and engineering at this point comes from reading sci-fi and ethical philosophy about artificial intelligence! A lot of what the characters say about tech in this story is very real, like the racist AI bots on social media, and how machine learning algorithms function based on scripts. I’m so interested in the collision of mysterious human desire with the literalness of computers. And as all of our interactions (work, health care, love, sex, play) are increasingly mediated by technology, how much do we care if we’re communicating with a real person or just something that gives us what we’re after?
Laurenn McCubbin is the editor and the designer of the book, as she was in the first volume, and as the famous saying goes, design is 99% invisible. I think editing is even more so. Could you talk about working with her and what she does?
I’m so glad you asked! Laurenn does so much invisible labor for SfSx. She’s the person I can text when I cannot crack a plot twist, or cannot figure out how to upload a huge file, or am freaking out about deadlines. She is such a calming presence for my anxieties about pretty much everything! As for the design, she built on the analog/mix tape/zine aesthetic of Protection into the cyberspace themes of Terms of Service. We’ve always said the look of this book is Tron meets the W.A.P. music video! So you see colleagues of magazine smut combined with glitchy textures and something gooey trying to break through. Laurenn is brilliant at that!
Related to design, we spoke last time about fashion, which is something that both of us admitted we didn’t pay much attention to when we were younger. You mention bimbos in this book and I feel like some of those same issues are at play – natural beauty vs artifice, prioritizing the “real” over the “fake”
You nailed it. I wanted Stacie to be the most outrageous bimbo: part Holli Would, part Angelyne, with the personality of the world’s friendliest and most intuitive stripper. G was right there with me, bringing her to life. I was really inspired by queer femmes who show that being glamorous and playful isn’t mutually exclusive with intelligence and strength. There’s so much going on with her that was so fun to play with: I knew exactly how she would talk because as a sex worker you know how to riff on the theme of bubbly and blank. There’s lot of stories about Marylin Monroe or Dolly Parton putting on a “dumb blonde” act while manipulating every situation to get what she wanted. When I went on the Progressively Horrified podcast to talk about Ex Machina, a movie that deeply influenced this book, Emily C. Martin brought up this sci-fi trope of the creature that was “born sexy yesterday” (eg Leeloo from The Fifth Element or Madison from Splash). I like the idea of reclaiming that from both porn and genre fiction, and exploring how a very strong and smart machine that looks like a bimbo could use that expectation strategically to its advantage.
I have no interest in spoiling anything, but I’m just going to say, that ending…
Mwahahaha! No spoilers, but that last page came to me early on, as a way to allow space for new characters in this book, bring something back from the first book, and weave them together in a way that tells you there’s more to come! I have a life-long love of comics and genre fiction, and I can remember the days when you had to wait a week to find out what happened to Mulder or a fucking summer to find out what happened to Buffy, so I love a surprise cliffhanger!
Tina, the final word is yours.
I hope this book will appeal to fans of Protection as well as people who just read it as its own graphic novel. I hope comic book, sci-fi, technothriller and horror fans love it as much as queer erotic conossuers (and of course many of us are all of the above). I hope everyone recognizes the unique talents of G, Kelly, Laurenn, Steve, and Tula and how their collaborations made this book what it is. And since this is a book about labor rights, I hope everyone knows we admire and stand with the wonderful workers of Image comics. Without them, there would be no books on your shelves. Finally, I want to thank the Kickstarter backers for their support, especially those who have been really kind to me as one human artist running a campaign for the first time.